This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…
–Whitman, Introduction of 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass
Some time ago I heard a story at Tellebration- the story-telling night we’ve held here for several years- and I filed it away in that place where we keep such things. I thought I might find use for it someday, so I filed it away in the back room. Last week someone sent me the story and I heard it in a new way: when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. I’ve edited a bit. I don’t know who wrote it.
When I was quite young we had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood. We lived in the Pacific Northwest in a little village called Porter’s Hollow, population 876.
I remember well, the polished old case fastened to the wall and the shiny receiver on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother would talk to it. Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person and her name was “Information Please” and there was nothing she did not know.
“Information Please” could supply anybody’s number and the correct time.
My first personal experience with this genie-in-a-box came one day while my mother was next door, visiting a neighbor. Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement. I whacked my finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible but there didn’t seem to be any reason in crying because there was no one home to give me sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway, the telephone!
Quickly, I ran for the footstool in the parlor so I could reach to phone. I held the receiver it to my ear. “Information Please” I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear. “Information.”
“I hurt my finger” I wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough now that I had an audience. “Isn’t your mother home?” came the question.
“Nobody’s home but me,” I blubbered.
“Are you bleeding?” the voice asked.
“No,” I replied. “I hit my finger with a hammer and it hurts.”
“Can you open your icebox?” she asked. I said I could. “Then chip off a piece of ice and hold it to your finger,” said the voice.
After that, I called “Information Please” for everything.
I asked her for help with my geography and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math. She told me that my pet chipmunk, which I had caught in the woods just the day before, would eat fruit and nuts.
Then there was the time Petey, our pet canary died. I called “Information Please” and told her the sad story. She listened, then said the usual thing grown ups say to soothe a child. But, I was inconsolable. I asked her, “Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?”
She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, “Paul, you must remember that there are other worlds to sing in.”
Somehow, I felt better.
Another day I was on the telephone. “Information Please”.
“Information,” said the now familiar voice. “How do you spell fix?'” I asked.
All this took place in Porter’s Hollow, that little village in the Pacific Northwest which holds my earliest memories. When I was nine years old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much.
“Information Please” belonged in that old wooden box back home and somehow I never thought of trying the tall, new shiny phone that sat on the table in the hall. As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciated now how patient, understanding and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.
A few years later, on my way west to college in Seattle, my plane put down in Seattle I visited my sister, who lived back in Porter’s Hollow, which had grown to over 2,000 souls. Without thinking about what I was doing, I dialed the operator and said, “Information Please.” Miraculously, I heard the small clear voice I knew so well. “Information.”
I hadn’t planned this, but I heard myself saying, “Could you please tell me how to spell fix?”
There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, “I guess your finger must be healed by now.” I laughed, “So it’s really still you,” I said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time?”
“I wonder,” she said, “if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children and I used to look forward to your calls.”
I told her how often I had thought of her over the years and asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister. “Please do,” she said. “Just ask for Sally.”
At the end of my first semester of college in Seattle I visited my sister and dialed the operator and asked for information please. This time a different voice answered, so I asked for Sally. “Are you a friend?” she said. “Yes, a very old friend,” I answered. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said. “Sally had been working part time in the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.” Before I could hang up she said, “Wait a minute. Are you Paul?”
“Yes”. “Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you.” The note said, “Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.”
I thanked her and hung up. I knew what Sally meant, I knew exactly what she meant.
Sermon: “Dear God”
“God,” they say, “is in the details.”
The graffiti on a wall in Washington, D.C. shortly after September 11 said, “Dear God, save us from people who believe in you.”
What kind of God are they talking about?
What kind of God do we need now?
What kind of God do you have?
When Moses was in exile, tending his father-in-law’s sheep at the foot of the mountain he would later climb to get the Ten Commandments, he saw a bush that was burning but was not consumed, and he heard a voice come from the bush and the voice told him to take the shoes off his feel for the place he was standing was holy ground.
The voice told him to return to his Porter’s Hollow, in Egypt, to free the Israelites who were in bondage. Moses was shaken to the core of his being; he resisted. He told the voice that came to him from this bush that was burning but was not consumed that he wasn’t capable of such a thing- he couldn’t speak very well, and, besides, he said, “If I go to the Hebrew people and tell them to follow me they will ask who sent me,” and the voice said, “I Am that I Am, tell them I Am has sent you.”
Moses was ready. He was alone. He felt safe. He was paying attention to the sheep, taking care of his responsibility. Those are the necessary ingredients to being receptive to a transformative spiritual experience.
Because he was alone, safe and paying attention to something outside of himself, he was able to find the courage to do what needed to be done. The task he was assigned gave him a sense of purpose, direction meaning. This task would take him way beyond the confines of his small world. He would confront the cruel Pharaoh and lead the people of Israel from bondage.
This, of course, is the story of Everyperson. It’s not about a man who lived thousands of years ago who performed a heroic deed, wondered the desert for forty years, got the Ten Commandments and died. It’s the story of what it means to be human- to grow up, settle down, find some security, get out of the narrow confines of oneself, which is the bondage each of us is in, and discover the Sacred Source within- to hear that still, small voice, and to respond in whatever way is necessary to free oneself from self-imposed bondage.
We all ask these questions: “How much of God do we need? How much of God can be known? Where is the line between trusting God to give direction to one’s life and the kind of blasphemy that says, ‘God wants me to blow myself up and kill as many Americans at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as I can’?”
We know why that person wrote that graffiti prayer: “Dear God, save us from those who believe in you.”
That little paradoxical prayer has been written across the centuries of our human-spiritual evolution.
What kind of God will you teach your children to believe in? What will you say about God when they ask?
It’s easier to be clear about the kind of God we don’t want our children to believe in, just as it’s easier for us to define or describe the god we don’t believe in- the god who sends planes into buildings, the god who promises paradise to suicide bombers in Israel.
Such a terrible and terrifying god has been created in man’s image and has been used to frighten children into behaving, but is soon abandoned by the thoughtful adolescent.
There’s a lot of talk about child abuse- physical abuse, sexual abuse and the abuse that’s the result of neglect.
We don’t talk much about religious abuse- the kind of abuse that deprives the sensitive child of an age-appropriate concept of God that helps them to feel safe in an uncertain world; the kind of God that helps them to respect those who think differently, worship differently, have different skin coloring or cultural differences.
An age-appropriate concept of God begins with assurances that the child will be safe in her parent’s arms and home; an age-appropriate concept of God encourages the growing child to talk to God and ask questions similar to the kind of questions Paul asked: “Where’s Philadelphia, and how do you spell fix?”
Later he will understand that the name of that famous place in Pennsylvania means ‘city of brotherly love.’ We’re all looking for the city of brotherly love, hoping to help bring it in.
Later he will learn to spell ‘fix,’ as Tikkun olam, the Hebrew term for fixing the broken world, repairing the world…working toward the perfection of the world.
Each of us has a concept of God. We become clear about the god we don’t believe in, or no longer believe in, and in that process we may feel there’s nothing left- there’s not an adequate construct or concept of God we can affirm.
At first we think of God the way Paul thought of the voice that came from that old telephone: Information Please.
We need answers. We need reassurance. We need to be heard. We need someone who cares, so we can let the tears out that we’ve had to hold in because there was no one there to hear the cry.
Gradually we realize that there’s not a person in that magic box. We learn about Alexander Graham Bell’s invention; we learn about satellites that are sent into space so we can bounce a voice message from Westport to Norwalk, or from Norwalk to Cairo…even if most of us don’t really understand much about it, we use the satellites for our cell phones and some of us never cease to marvel at the mystery and wonder of it all.
As it is with the telephone- the lady in the box, so it is with God. We may stop believing that there’s a kind of information-please-like God/Man out there who listens to our prayers and answers the questions about why birds have to die…and why children have to die…and why grandmothers have to die. If we’re fortunate, we’re able to transcend the narrow limits of our knowing and allow ourselves to talk to God instead of arguing about whether or not God exists. “Argue not concerning God.”
We know full well that we exist. We know full well that we need one another. We know full well that we need to talk to make a connection with something that is so deep within us that it connects us to the suffering of humanity; that connects us to memories of loved ones that we hold in that precious place we call the soul…that we need to nurture and nourish our spirits because they get drained day after day in a world where people are killing one another in the name of a god that causes someone to write, “Dear God save us from those who believe in you.”
The voice of God that came from the burning bush is the voice of courage and compassion. That voice said to Moses: “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and heard their cry because of their taskmasters.”
The voice that came to Moses in this marvelous little piece of mythology is that inner voice we call compassion, and it is enough of God to carry us through.
God is absent whenever we lose compassion- in our anger, rage or resentment…in our need to retaliate or desire to seek revenge.
The voice of God came to Moses when he was alone, when he felt safe, when he was paying attention to the animals which was his responsibility.
The voice of God gets lost when we’re in the midst of fleeing, when we’re in the midst of some great upheaval in our lives, and we suffer that terrible loss of faith.
But Moses felt safe out there that day, tending the flock. He wasn’t looking for God. That, too, is an important part of the mythology. He was paying attention to the sheep. He was paying attention to the bush…like the beautiful yellow forsythia bush beside the sanctuary that someone noticed last Sunday and said to me, “That yellow bush is dazzlingly beautiful…it’s radiant.”
“Love the earth and the sun, love the animals…”
The bush was burning but it wasn’t consumed- it was waiting for me to notice and to realize that the energy in that bush, the magnificent yellow, is a reminder that ‘there are other worlds to sing in.’
There are five or six billion of us humans on the planet, but a God’s-eye view reminds us that we are One.
There are lots of wonderful child-like ideas of God that help us to get through the day or with whom we can more easily fall asleep at night.
There are some childish ideas of God that persist and from which we pray to be saved!
It is possible to move through the years of our lives with an ever-evolving concept of God…a God who is present in our tears…a God who is there to calm the fears…a God who comes alive in the love and compassion we feel and who fixes what’s been broken…who mends what needs repair…who heals what’s been wounded.
To find it ‘this is what you shall do:’ Love the earth and sun and animals…stand up against the tyrants…argue not concerning God…have patience…re-examine all you have been told at school or church or read in any book…dismiss whatever insults your soul…’
Emerson put it well in a prayerful poem he called Self-Reliance:
Henceforth, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Light-hearted as a bird and live with God.
I find him in the bottom of my heart,
And I hear continually his voice therein.
The little needle always knows the north,
The little bird remembereth his note,
And this wise Seer within me never errs.
I never taught it what it teaches me;
I only follow, when I act aright.